Beer festivals are rare events for me nowadays. My visit to the Sussex CAMRA Branches Beer & Cider Festival last night was my first attendance at a CAMRA beer festival since the Great British Beer Festival of 2012. I used to find regional CAMRA beer festivals to be too crowded with little or no seating and a challenge to get to the bar for the drinks. With that in mind I was a little worried when I saw the queue outside Hove Town Hall at opening time.
Once inside I saw signs downstairs to the Sussex Bar and upstairs to the main bar but no indication as to where I could obtain the necessary glass, tokens and festival programme (I may have missed it of course). Once I found the programme alongside the glasses and tokens (more queuing needed here too) the map inside the programme showed me where the glasses and tokens could be found of course!! The programme had an excellent beer listing with colour indicator and comprehensive tasting notes. The usual cider and perry listings were there too along with the bottled beers. This is a massive improvement on the programmes I remember from past regional festivals where you often had to make do with a sheet of paper folded over for the beer listings with nothing in the way of tasting notes.
Since I have been writing about beer I have met enough people in both the real world and the virtual world to be confident of bumping into someone I know at a beer festival so I was sure I wouldn't be standing around on my own for too long. That was indeed true. I soon bumped into Neal, Bob and all the other guys from Arundel Brewery who were using the festival to showcase their new American Pale Ale, Wild Heaven (5.2% ABV). This was the beer I was able to get a preview of when I visited the brewery a few weeks ago. With pint glass in hand (always a good idea as you usually get generous halves) I began with this beer in the Sussex bar. I was not disappointed. A beautiful hoppy concoction with a strong bitter finish. This got a 9/10 rating from me giving me room for maneuver if I found anything better.
Whilst chatting with the Arundel guys I met Alistair for the first time, a connection from the virtual world of Twitter, who manages the excellent Southover pub in Brighton. Proof once again that once you enter the online beer world you are never short of genuinely nice people to chat to over a pint. However, it was time to make my way upstairs to the main bar as festivals for me are all about trying beers from further afield. Beer number two was Hopspur (4.5% ABV) from the Redemption brewery in Tottenham, North London. Redemption won the beer of the festival last year at my local Yapton Beerex and when we visited the brewery last August the Hopspur was one beer that was not available for sampling. It is a very citrussy easy to drink beer with grapefruit dominant and a gentle bittersweet finish. This picked up an 8/10 from me and it was already apparent that this festival would see me consuming quite a few hoppy ales. These type of beers were not really around in the quantities they are now when I last went to a regional beer festival. In those days you could move from one brown beer to the next without noticing any great difference between any of them. Exciting times indeed.
Beer number three was Amish Mash (4.7% ABV) from Great Heck Brewery based in North Yorkshire. The beer was described as a genuine German style Weizen with Apollo, Bravo and Galena hops. The beer was therefore naturally hazy and there was more hoppy heaven for me. This beer was fantastic and extremely refreshing and drinkable with citrussy notes evident once again. Top marks for this one.
Beer number four, the Nooksack APA (5.0% ABV), was recommended to me by Alistair whilst I was passing on my recommendation of the Amish Mash to him. This fruity American Pale Ale was being launched here and it was a collaboration between Twickenham and local brewer Kissingate. This APA was more fruity and less bitter than the Arundel Wild Heaven but it was another lovely beer and I gave it a score of 8/10.
Seating is always an issue at beer festivals. The amount available can often vary between none at all and never enough but I must say this festival had an abundance. I found Nick Little and his wife Paula and was able to sit with them for the remainder of the evening with Neal, the Arundel Brewery owner, sitting across from us too. Nick and Paula are close to opening their own micropub in Worthing and they were sporting their Brooksteed Alehouse embroidered polo shirts which were impressive so I will give them a plug with the picture below. After working in the 'extremely exciting world of IT' for 25 years I have absolutely no idea why Nick would want to give up this great career to run a micropub!! Sorry I could not keep a straight face whilst typing that bit.
The other thing I always used to find with beer festivals is the dubious beer quality and I would include the Great British Beer Festival here too. Cooling can be an issue of course and the beer can often seem a bit lifeless compared to getting a pub pint that is served in excellent condition. The first four beers of the evening proved to me that quality was no cause for concern here. I could recommend every beer so far and the same could be said for the next one. Scottish brewers are discovering hops too and the 4.0% ABV HipHopopotamus (try saying that late in the evening!) from Ayr Brewing Company was another citrussy gem that was very refreshing and zingy. This was recommended by Nick and boy was it good and it was my second 9/10 beer of the evening.
I was all hopped out now so I changed tack with beer number six and went for the Gadd's Oatmeal Stout courtesy of the Ramsgate Brewery. This new oatmeal stout is a big winner with me and yet another 9/10 beer. Full of roasted coffee and bitter chocolate notes giving a lovely intense bitter finish over the underlying oaty biscuity base. Fabulous. Equally impressive was beer number seven, Joshua Jane (3.7% ABV), from the Ilkley Brewery. This is the second Ilkley beer I've enjoyed this week and this was very different again. It is a nutty brown ale in more ways than one because the caramel base is infused with a delightful hoppiness. Pure genius this one and although I awarded it a 9/10 I can't quite remember why it didn't get a ten because it is a memorable beer.
The final two beers did not hit the same heights as the earlier ones but that might be due to my confused tastebuds having worked overtime all evening. The Pacific Ghost IPA (5.9% ABV) from the Raw Brewing Company did not give me the expected citrussy hoppy hit. I detected more fragrant notes with some grassy lemon notes in evidence too. Finally, Glaslyn (4.2% ABV) from Welsh brewer Purple Moose was a well-balanced bitter that lacked a bit of character for me. Pleasant enough but it had come across stiff competition from the earlier beers. Both of these final two beers picked up a respectable 7/10 from me.
The good news is that the 24th Sussex CAMRA Branches Beer & Cider Festival is superb and if you have a ticket for today or tomorrow you should find some lovely beers to enjoy and a comfortable seat in which to relax. The bad news is that the venue is being pulled down at the end of this year so the festival needs a new home for its silver anniversary. Let's hope a suitable venue can be found and that this festival can continue because this was quite possibly the most enjoyable regional beer festival I have ever attended.